In the past, she lived on extremes. She once worked in a New York saloon full of exotic drunks, a dance-on-the-bar-and-kick-out-the-lights joint that segued from a short story to an article to the movie Coyote Ugly. For another story she spent a week disguised as a man, with birdseed in her crotch and stubble glued to her face. Eventually, she started searching for something deeper to write about. She learned about a man named Jim McLaren, a guy who’d been an athlete, a scholar and a theater star at Yale, who got hit by a bus, making him an amputee, then, a few years later, got hit by a car, making him a quadriplegic. A guy who’d reached such a point of physical pain and torture that he’d lost everything. He had no future, no hope, no longer even the question of “Who am I?”
Her editor at GQ, Jim Nelson, thought writing McLaren’s story was a crazy idea, and the only writer he would even consider assigning it to was Liz. Because she was so charged by Jim McLaren, needed to know so badly, absolutely had to understand: How does someone find himself who is utterly lost?
It was right about then that her own life came crashing down: She was married, pushing 30, with the Hudson Valley house, and it was time to … have kids! But a family, she was sure, would take her other life away. So which life did she want? Which direction was she supposed to take? The crisis was far worse than a divorce, “because it fucked with the narrative of happiness in her head,” says Nelson. It was the end of the story of wanting, and getting, everything. That story was over. She was lost.
Until Eat, Pray, Love. Not the success, but the travail of it. The work.
IT’S CATHERINE WHO puts her finger squarely on what it was that had Liz zinging along professionally while the rest of her life kept crashing into a ditch. Catherine calls it a bifurcated epiphany: “Liz knew she wanted to be a writer from the time she was 13, but she’s so gregarious, a lot of the struggles everyone else goes through in their adolescence and early 20s — ‘Who am I? What am I?’ — she managed to avoid.” On the heels of her divorce, though, no more avoiding. So she went on a gigantic trek, searching for answers that would change how she lived.
For a few years there, between college and getting married, Philly had been Liz’s home, because that’s where Catherine was, the soft landing between men or assignments. Catherine now writes young-adult novels, and lives in Wayne with her husband and two children. So post-EPL, when Liz and José were trying to figure out where to finally live, Liz decided on the Delaware Valley. But initially, her life with José was literally all over the map.